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I’ll confess right away that I still haven’t quite “finished” reading Ann Zwinger’s Beyond the Aspen Grove, the subject of tonight’s Big Something Book Club at Poor Richard’s Bookstore at 6 p.m. Somehow, reading it straight through felt impossible, if not sacrilegious. I’ve picked up the book many times over the years, admired its lovingly accurate black and white illustrations of plants like whiskbroom parsley and meadowrue and marveled at Zwinger’s encyclopedic vocabulary. I fancied I’d finally read it through for the book club… but couldn’t. Like Constant Friendship—the land her book so meticulously catalogs with both poet’s tongue and scientist’s eye—the book demands repeated visits over long periods of time, close and careful attention, a humble willingness to learn and observe. In short, I’m not sure it’s a book that one ever “finishes” so much as visits.
But every visit has a payoff no matter where you open it.
Near the end of the book, Zwinger writes a passage in which she meditates on the necessary interventions in the land she loves (a fence they built, a hewn Aspen tree that might have been home to birds or animals, etc.):
My interest in the vast world of nature began when we came to this land, with the finding of a new world, a sense of discovery, a sharing. But somewhere in the learning came commitment, the realization that in the understanding of this natural world comes the maintenance of it, that with knowledge comes responsibility.
Sounds like a line out of a Spiderman comic! And that’s Zwinger’s great achievement—her ability to communicate her boundless curiosity about this small corner of the world and expand it into the context of stewardship driven not by guilt, but by love:
Because we can and do manipulate our environment, we are then charged with the responsibility of our acts, for if we are to survive we must insure that this best of all possible worlds survives with us.
Zwinger’s ability to share her awe and wonder while remaining humbly aware of her own delicate relationship with the land she alters as she observes it makes her much more than environmentalist or naturalist, but an advocate, above all, for consciousness and awareness of all things—for paying close attention to what surrounds you and taking responsibility for it. It’s this sense of both awe and responsibility that inspires us.
All of this was sloshing around in the back of my mind last week when I met up with an old student of Zwinger’s named Melissa Walker. The former Lead Naturalist and Programs Coordinator for the Garden of the Gods, Walker (you can read her blog HERE) contacted me after reading my the first entry of my “Empty Reservoir Diaries,” a project inspired by Zwinger’s book in which I’m hoping to learn as much as I can about a the old Valley Reservoir loop in the southeast corner of Garden of the Gods where I’ve been walking for years. We agreed to meet for a hike. I was hoping Walker could help me flesh out some of the natural history of the area.
Within a few hundred yards of the trailhead, Walker opened up the all-too-familiar loop like Zwinger’s book: the Dakota ridge is home to the northernmost edge of Pinon and Juniper (P&J) forest that run along the ridge of porous sandstone like a stripe toward the old Valley Reservoir, which provided water for Rock Ledge Ranch. A Townsend’s Solitaire sang its single-note song from limbs of one-seeded juniper, and a nondescript outcropping of Dakota sandstone I’d walked blithely past more than a hundred times just up the hill from the Ute Trail marker turned out to be the former resting place of Theiophytalia kerri, a one-of-a-kind dinosaur. “Theios is of Greek origin, meaning “belonging to the gods” and phytalia means “garden.” kerri honors the name of the scientist who first discovered this 125 million year old skull in Garden of the Gods Park.” In other words, the Gardenofthegodsosaurus. Granted, you can see this skull at the GOG Visitor Center, but it’s another thing entirely to stand at its grave site, which you’ve been walking past unaware for 20 years. More than anything, this revelation, which was precipitated entirely by Beyond the Aspen Grove, makes me wonder how many other amazing things—great and small—I pass by each day.
This is all by way of saying that, whether you finished the book or not, we hope you join us at Poor Richard’s Bookstore tonight at 6 p.m. at the front table to read some passages together and talk about how Ann Zwinger’s book may have changed the way you see the world. If you haven’t read it yet, you can get a great sense of it even by reading a few pages HERE at Google Books for free.
Please join us or leave your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks! (firstname.lastname@example.org)